Give with your head, not just your heart

We all feel more generous this time of year, and while donating to a good cause is a way many people share the holiday spirit, it is important to know where your charitable donations are going.

Charity scams reach new heights this time of year. But, armed with a little knowledge, you can make sure that your donations do not end up in the pockets of a scammer.

It is imperative to know where your donations are going. There are some professional fundraisers, especially telemarketers, who pocket for themselves 85-90 percent of what they raise. You are better off making your charitable donation either at the charity’s website or by calling the charity directly.

Scammers set up fake charities often using sound-alike names of well-known and respected charities. Or, they invent names purporting to help with popular causes that target older donors in particular: police and firefighters, sick or needy children, victims of recent natural disasters, and veterans.

Scammers who telephone may use spoofing technology that makes your caller ID screen display the name of a legitimate charity.

If you get a phone solicitation and are interested in donating, find the organization’s phone number yourself, then call and ask for more information, such as a brochure. Once you receive the information you’ve requested, confirm that the contact information and place to send your money matches what you’ve found on your own.

Mailings that arrive at your home the old-fashioned way tend to be the most credible, but again, be suspicious of those from groups to which you’ve never previously donated.

Doing a little background research on the charity you choose to give to could help provide the facts you need to know before giving away some of your money. A good place to find out if a charity is real or merely has a name that sounds legitimate is Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org) or the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance (www.give.org). The Federal Trade Commission also has a website (www.ftc.gov/charity) to help you verify charities.

Once you’ve authenticated charities worthy of your money, mailed personal checks are your safest form of payment. Never give your credit card information to someone soliciting on behalf of a charity who has called you. And beware of any group that offers to send someone to pick up cash or a personal check at your home.

If you have doubts, consider giving directly to smaller local charities where you can more easily see the impact of your donation.

For information about other fraud and scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network at www.aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud.

AARP also has trained Fraud Fighters willing to present fraud and scam information to small groups and clubs. Call 866-554-5383 or email aarpnd@aarp.org to schedule a presentation.